Adoption and Child Migration in U.S. History

When thinking of child migration, certain forms of mobility come to mind: children seeking refuge, child soldiering, or trafficking in children. Who would think of international adoptees as migrants? Yet, they are. An overview of U.S. adoption history.

An orphaned child from the Congo meets his American adoptive parents at an airport in Virginia. (© picture-alliance/AP)

Deutsche Version des Artikels

International adoption from foreign countries to the United States officially began right after World War II. A new phenomenon, U.S. citizens adopted an estimated 35,000 children from overseas from 1947 to 1975. Although numbers were low compared to those of domestic adoptions that occurred in this period, these adoptions were widely publicized and highly visible. [1] Over this era, children came from a wide variety of nations in Europe, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, with most adoptees arriving from South Korea, South Vietnam, Germany, Greece, and Italy. Wars in Europe and Asia had left thousands of children orphaned, many the offspring of American soldiers. Fearful that communist powers would frame the crisis as a failure of democracy, U.S. policymakers relaxed immigration laws for these largely nonwhite orphans and allowed them into the United States as refugees. [2] War orphans and “GI babies”—the offspring of U.S. soldiers and foreign women—received the most press in the United States. Yet from the onset American couples were eager to adopt all types of foreign children, regardless whether they had surviving parents or connections to the military. While Western European countries and Australia did conduct some foreign adoptions from Korea and Vietnam, the numbers were small compared to the U.S. program.

Factors Leading to Increase in Adoptions

International adoption’s rise was the result of many factors. Relief organizations and private citizens first considered the adoption of French and Belgian orphans to the United States during and after World War I, but restrictive immigration laws and isolationist foreign policies quickly stymied such efforts. [3] Unlike policies during World War I, Cold War foreign policy enforced a domestic cultural mandate to embrace other nations, especially those vulnerable to communist takeovers. Destitute young children pricked the collective conscience of post-World War II America. In the view of many lawmakers and politicians, orphans made ideal immigrants and citizens because “of their youth, flexibility, and lack of ties to any other cultures.” Such traits bolstered officials’ conviction that children could be transplanted with great public success, since “a child in need does not know or care about national boundaries,” as one social welfare official commented. Christened “the best possible immigrants” by the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, international adoptees were so highly desired by American families that U.S. immigration law would broaden the definition of orphan in 1948 to include children with two living parents. [4]

Domestic factors also contributed to international adoption’s growing popularity. U.S. child welfare agencies were scrambling to meet the demand for adoptable children in the post-World War II era. By the late-1940s, the U.S. birthrate jumped, ushering in a baby boom. Along with birthrate increases, U.S. culture became decidedly pronatalist, leading couples unable to have children to go to great lengths to build their families. Legislators in congressional hearings frequently referenced U.S. couples’ astounding interest in adoption. To assist such couples, federal lawmakers liberalized immigration policies, limited the regulation of adoption markets, and perpetuated policies that gave volunteer adoption placements significant clout. Indeed, these factors made international adoption accessible, affordable, and efficient for American families. [5]

Changing Countries of Origin

After a multiyear dip brought on by decreasing hot spots in the Cold War conflict, the U.S. adoption of foreign children reached a historic high by 1987 at just over 10,000 placements, nearly doubling from annual totals of around 5,000 in the previous decade. Although countries like Greece and Vietnam no longer sent children to the United States, Korean adoptions grew throughout the 1980s, driven by government pressures on single mothers to relinquish their children for overseas adoption in response to rapid urbanization and industrialization. Over the next twenty-five years, annual totals held steady for a decade before growing significantly starting in 1996. And as in the past, large-scale geopolitical changes meant new sending countries for foreign children. When the Cold War ended, for instance, there was a large uptick in children adopted from the orphanages of Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. Although adoptions began tapering noticeably in 2009 because of, among other factors, increasing restrictions under the Hague Convention, international adoption continues to be a prominent method of family formation. Indeed, since 1999, Americans have adopted over 271,000 children from overseas. [6]


The Hague Convention

The Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption is an international agreement that was concluded on May 29, 1993, in The Hague, Netherlands. It establishes international safeguards for intercountry adoptions by introducing standards of practices. It aims at guarding the child's best interests and preventing abuse such as trafficking in children as well as ensuring that international adoption is a “last resort.”

Changes to Immigration Laws

Making international adoptions feasible required changes to existing immigration laws. Under the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act (more commonly referred to as the National Origins Act), U.S. immigrants were subject to restrictive quotas, limiting those coming from countries in South and East Asia to one hundred per country. Thus, to permit the entry of foreign children for adoption, legislators had to grant exceptions. At first, they used special directives and focused their efforts on European children. From 1946-48, President Harry Truman issued a special directive giving displaced orphans “preferential treatment” in visa distribution, which authorized 1,387 European orphans to be placed primarily with relatives. Then, in 1948, Congress included orphan provisions in the Displaced Persons Act, which provided 3,000 non-quota visas to orphaned European children. Unlike special directives, these adoptions placed children with strangers and gave U.S. families hope that they could adopt a child from abroad.

Up until this point, immigration provisions for international adoptees only applied to children from European countries. But in 1950, Public Law 717 extended citizenship to the children of foreign women and U.S. military forces, regardless of race. Along with the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which ended the decades-long exclusion on Asian migration and citizenship, these laws established the possibility for U.S. citizens to adopt children from Asia. Nevertheless, the 1952 law maintained small quotas for Asian countries. Congress circumvented these limits through refugee law, namely the 1953 Refugee Relief Act. This act permitted 4,000 international adoptees to enter the United States regardless of origin country.

Until 1961, U.S. immigration law categorized foreign orphans as refugees. At a time when the “traditional” refugee was a European anticommunist, fleeing from political and religious persecution, officials remapped the definition of refugee so that foreign orphans from “friendly” countries such as Ireland, West Germany, and South Korea qualified. That federal policymakers used refugee law was no accident. Refugee policies resonate with political and diplomatic prerogatives. Through more expansive refugee policies, sympathetic lawmakers could circumvent the existing race-based quota system, which remained under the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act. If funneled through the immigration quota system, the number of South Koreans adoptees would have been limited to one hundred—a number far below the demand from U.S. families. [7]

But adoptees did not remain refugees. Once international adoption had received widespread acclaim and support, in 1961 it became a permanent part of immigration law, and foreign adoptees were reclassified as immigrants: albeit, immigrants subject to no quotas or ceilings. Since the 1965 Hart-Celler Act maintained a global quota system of 20,000 immigrants per country and a 290,000 total ceiling, no other migrants enjoyed such privilege. In effect, through this law, the United States declared that it would welcome as many foreign orphans as U.S. couples wanted to adopt. [8]

Another way that legislators authorized the entry of foreign children was through the use of parole visas. Introduced under the Eisenhower administration to admit individual political refugees on a moment’s notice, it was most often used for airlifting large numbers of migrants, including those displaced by the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and the Cuban Revolution in 1959. [9] In the case of international adoption, the most famed use of the parole visa was the 1975 Operation Babylift, which brought 2,200 Vietnamese children to the United States in less than a month at the end of the Vietnam War. Since the parole power did not require oversight from Congress, it gave the State Department extensive autonomy. And parole visas have continued to play a role in the admission of orphans. The 1,150 children airlifted out of Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, for instance, came to the United States under parole visas. [10]

Adoptees – Privileged Immigrants

Comparing international adoptee’s migrations with the fate of other child migrants highlights their uniqueness. Under current immigration law, citizen children under the age of 21 are unable to sponsor their parents to obtain permanent residency. Thus, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, more than 100,000 deportations separated citizen children from parents, causing over one million family members to lose a parent or spouse. More recently, the Trump Administration has provoked international outrage over its enforcement of a “zero-tolerance” policy for border crossers. Criminalizing these migrants has led to the separation of children from their parents, sometimes for months, before deportation. Unaccompanied minors also face few options. Although they cannot be immediately deported, unless the governing agency determines that children are being persecuted or trafficked, they will eventually be deported. Driven by increasing violence in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, in 2014 the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border increased by 90 percent. Of the nearly 100,000 children apprehended in 2014, analysts estimate that 60 percent were eventually deported. As these examples show, inequities exist for foreign children migrating to the United States. At least in terms of immigration law, international adoptees are still considered the “best possible immigrants.” [11]


And in Germany?

As in the United States, foreign children and juveniles migrating to Germany by way of adoption through an adult with German citizenship, enjoy privileges other child migrants such as unaccompanied minors do not. If the adoption is considered lawful and the adoptee is under the age of 18, he or she is immediately granted German citizenship. Between 1991 and 2016 couples in Germany adopted 146,580 children and adolescents 35,230 of which were foreign citizens. While the annual number of adoptions in the 1990s stood at 6,400 to 8,700, adoptions have seen a notable decrease thereafter. Since 2012 less than 4,000 children have been adopted annually.*

*Website of the German Federal Central Office for International Adoptions [Bundeszentralstelle für Auslandsadoptionen], accessed August 17, 2018, https://www.bundesjustizamt.de/DE/Themen/Buergerdienste/BZAA/BZAA_node.html; German Federal Statistical Office [Statistisches Bundesamt], Statistiken der Kinder- und Jugendhilfe. Adoptionen 2016 (Wiesbaden, 2018), accessed August 17, 2018, https://www.destatis.de/ .

Deutsche Version des Artikels

This article is part of the policy brief on Child and Youth Migration.
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Domestic and transracial adoption statistics are uneven and spotty from 1945 to 1955, since they relied on states to report data and social welfare experts did not have reliable sources to track the number of independent adoptions conducted. These figures are estimates based on the following sources: Penelope L. Maza, “Adoption Trends: 1944-1975,” Child Welfare Research Notes #9 (U.S. Children’s Bureau, August 1984), 1-4, Box 65, Folder: Adoption-Research-Reprints of Articles, Child Welfare League of America papers; Lena Heyman to Alan Olschwang, June 14, 1965, Box 1033, Folder: Non-resident Problems (includes Juvenile Immigration, Transient Boys), June 1965, 1963-68, US Children’s Bureau (USCB) papers; Barbara Melosh, Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 160.
Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 188; Christian G. Appy, ed., Culture Politics and the Cold War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).
Chief Julia Lathrop to Dr. H. H. Hart, August 14, 1918; Lulie Jones to Julia Lathrop, November 20, 1918; Julia Lathrop to Lulie Jones, November 21, 1918; Immigration Commissioner to Anthony Caminetti, March 25, 1916, all in Box 67, Folder: War in Relation to Dependency, USCB papers.
Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Authorizing Additional Visas for Orphans, 84th Cong., 2nd sess., 1956, S. Rpt. 2684, 3; Betsy Carrington, Vice Chairperson of the ISS Intercountry Adoption Committee, to Charles Akre, Chairperson, July 31, 1963, Box 3, Folder: Administration: Comm Intercountry Adoption Correspondence, 1963-1966, ISS papers.
Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (Basic Books, 1999), 120-121; and Rachel Rains Winslow, The Best Possible Immigrants: International Adoption and the American Family (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
Intercountry Adoption Statistics, Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State, accessed July 26, 2018, https://travel.state.gov/; and Tobias Hübinette, Comforting an Orphaned Nation (Seoul; Jimoondang, 2006). It’s important to note that historical adoption statistics can vary by source because recordkeeping has varied by era. These numbers represent the best numbers available to date.
Carl Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees During the Cold War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Bon Tempo; Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004); Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002); and Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (New York: Macmillan, 2005).
Marvin Samuel Gross, “Refugee-Parolee: The Dilemma of the Indochina Refugee,” San Diego Law Review 13 (1975-76): 175.
House Subcommittee, Hearings on Refugees from Indochina, April 8, 1975, 32-33; and Edward M. Kennedy, “Refugee Act of 1960,” International Migration Review 15, no. 1-2 (Spring–Summer, 1981): 146.
Joseph Nevins, Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond (New York: Routledge, 2010), 186; Marc R. Rosenblum and Isabel Ball, “Trends in Unaccompanied Child and Family Migration from Central America,” Migration Policy Institute, accessed July 27, 2018, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/trends-unaccompanied-child-and-family-migration-central-america; Diana Villiers Negroponte, “The Surge in Unaccompanied Children from Central America,” Brookings Institute, accessed July 27, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/.

Rachel Rains Winslow

Rachel Rains Winslow

Dr. Rachel Rains Winslow is Assistant Professor of History at Westmont College, California, USA. Her research focuses on race, family, gender, childhood, and social policy, especially in transnational and interdisciplinary contexts. She is author of the book "The Best Possible Immigrants: International Adoption, Social Policy, and the American Family" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

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